The Internet stranger
Below is just another excerpt from my journal.
Can I be anything other than an Internet stranger?
You! I am talking to you. Am I not a stranger? Maybe you have read a few of my publications and watched a video or two. I share my name and show my face. These might make you think that you know me. It is a fair impression. You do know something. Though the picture you get is distorted despite my best intentions. For example, I do a video where I talk for one hour non-stop and you get the sense that I am the kind of person who never shuts up. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I might barely utter a word for the rest of the day. Though you cannot possibly figure as much from the source material.
Now I am telling you that I am the silent type. Am I not an Internet stranger anymore? I still am. I can continue sharing such trivia and retain my status. Why? Because your only source of information is my filter. When we discover someone, we do it using our own means. We develop a sense of their self that may not be consistent with their own version of it. The perception is not shared. There are different perspectives. Compatibility is possible, especially if the person internalises the views of their peers, though the chance of a mismatch remains.
For as long as you depend on my filter, I will remain an Internet stranger. I can tell you whatever I want, but you have no means of verifying it. If you believe me, it may be because I am genuine, or a shrewd liar, or maybe you are just biased in my favour for whatever reason. You cannot know if I am authentic or not, as all you get is my filter. That is fine. There is nothing I can do about it, other than claim to speak sincerely.
The Internet is where we retrieve our information from. You are here for my work as it might be helpful to you. I do the same. Imagine I had nothing to share that is useful to your workflow or thinking in general. Would you be here? No lies! I would not. I would never check on a stranger as there is no chance of a human connection, anyway. Why should I expect such a bond, given that we have nothing in common that we know of? Yes, this is where appearances come into play and the sheer chance of physical proximity. Though those do not apply to my case, so we can ignore them.
Tomorrow I may no longer be around. Should that affect you? No. Does the reason of my disappearance matter? I might fall off one of those cliffs I keep climbing—it might be my secret wish without me even realising it. Maybe I will meet a tourist, we will fall in love and get married in some distant land. Aliens may abduct me and take me to their home planet. Or I might simply get bored and find a new hobby that does not involve my website or the Internet at-large. There are lots of possibilities. Does it matter though, beside whatever mere curiosity in learning how the story ends? It does not. It should not. All you have is the filter. Strangers then.
People tell me that I surprise them. Such as when I show them my sense of humour and they giggle. They expect me to be dead serious the whole time. Why? Perhaps because I am not making jokes in my videos. I don’t do it as my humour relies on witty statements and what we call “inside jokes”. It is better for one-on-one exchanges or a small circle of friends than a wide audience. Or maybe it is because they expect a philosopher to be somehow different than a “normal” person? There is nothing I can do about that except to declare that I am a regular fellow.
The specifics notwithstanding, the point is that there is a diversity of impressions on one’s selfhood… People process information about someone on the basis of what they discern, in light of what they know, in accordance with how they think, and depending on the prevailing conditions in the moment. To the question “who is Protesilaos” we might get a multitude of answers, including more than one from the same person. The answers will also depend on who asks, to what end, and on the perceived audience. If, for example, we expect a child to be the audience, the answer we provide will focus on, say, me being the handler of a big black dog. To an adult with an interest in reading, the attention may shift to writings such as this one.
There is no one answer. Even someone we consider a close friend can surprise us, when we assume too many things. More so for an Internet stranger, whose filter we depend on.
You too are an Internet stranger to me. What I have learnt is to not assume anything. I only take what you tell me at face value. Why? Because it saves me from the surprises. I do not want you to be some one in some way. The upside is that I am calm about it: I expect nothing and don’t need to re-learn things about you, or else re-align my assumptions with the newly available information. The downside is that I appear indifferent, even though I am not. I don’t ask questions and respect your privacy. This makes it easier for you, as you don’t have me—a stranger—nagging you about your affairs. Yet it also means that I remain a stranger to you, due to the perceived indifference I show.
I think what I have always done is observe patterns of behaviour and learn about the human condition. Long before I started doing philosophy, I was studying people without any express intent to do so. I witnessed how, for example, young males behave in a highly competitive sport environment compared to when they are in a casual setting; how students prioritise bragging about their perfect grades over actually learning the given field of knowledge; how individuals can be manipulative when the twin goals of greater influence and prestige appear to be within reach… I have worked at construction sites, pubs, hotels, and institutions of power. I have conversed with folks from all walks of life. I have seen those who are chasing their luch and the ones who are running away from it.
The overarching lesson I have internalised is to not make assumptions about people and refrain from judging them. Someone is super friendly and supportive? They may be genuine or they might have some ulterior motive and are simply faking the apparent friendliness. One cannot be sure. I thus adopt the approach of taking things slowly. If you want to tell me more about you, I will listen and/or observe. But I will not fill in the blanks with my own beliefs: those are what lead us to mistake manipulation for kindness, for example, or to think that an “ugly” person is also a bad person even though they may be a sweetheart in actuality. I only take what you provide, with the hope that I will discover the real human behind such information. “Hope” is the operative term, as you may never share much, while your status as an Internet stranger may still inhibit my effort of understanding you. Though I am patient. I do not insist.
I do not like being an Internet stranger. I am not working towards that eventuality. Human connections are rewarding and enrich one’s life. Yet there is no way for me to escape from this predicament. On the one hand, the aforementioned filter prevents you from discerning “real me”; just how your filter obscures “real you” from me. On the other hand, I am not asking you—or anyone—any questions. The notion of “the first move” has connotations which do not apply here. But please ignore those and just take the words literally: I am not making the first move so as to not get in the way. In the way of what? I have no idea, for I am a stranger.
Perhaps, then, I subconsciously prefer being an Internet stranger. What do I fear? Abuse? Disappointment? Impoliteness? Maybe the distance I am keeping is to protect myself, even though it also comes from a place of respect towards you? Do answers matter when they have no impact on the state of affairs?
Off I go now for a hike. Maybe this is the day I fall from a cliff, have that fateful meeting with a tourist, or witness the inevitable descent of the aliens. Or it might end up being more of the same routines. It does not matter to you. Does it matter to me though? Evaluations of this sort are arbitrary. I am at a point where I think the answer is negative: what happens, happens. The end to the story is just that: a story.